The Importance of Scouting

Mallefowl on Nest, Victoria, Australia - I created this image after consulting local birders and scouting the nest the night before.

Would you ever walk into a business meeting with a possible new client without first doing background research on who they are, what they want, and how you can best market yourself to them?  Would you go on stage as the leading role in a play without first memorizing your lines and running through numerous rehearsals?  Would you take an exam without ever having studied the material?

Of course not!

Then why would you go to a place to photograph without a thorough understanding of what to expect, where to find it, and when to be there?  Scouting is a simple and easy step overlooked far too often.

The image above was taken during my travels in Australia in 2006.  The Malleefowl is part of a family of birds found in Australia and Asia that build huge mounds and bury their eggs inside the mounds.  They then regulate the temperature inside the nest by adding or subtracting material from the top.  Typically, decomposing vegetation inside the nest, creates the warmth to incubate the eggs.  However, the Malleefowl is a bit different.  It is the only Mound-Builder to live in semi-arid environments and uses the sun and sand to create the necessary warmth.  These birds are rather shy and live in a very small area of Australia.  I was only able to locate and photograph this bird on its mound through tips from local birders and scouting the previous day.  I set up my blind and knew exactly what to expect the following morning and created the image I had in my mind.

As photographers, this preparation is one of the easiest things we can do to improve our photography.  You can learn to scout a new location and prepare for a photo shoot in three simple steps.

Map It

Before I ever step into the field, I first study the location on a map.  Sounds simple right?  It’s amazing what you can learn from a map and this step is so often ignored.  A street map usually doesn’t cut it either.  You have to find something more useful like a topographical map and make it the most detailed one you can find.  Learn the lay of the land.  I can’t tell you how many times I have shown up to photograph and totally overlooked something simple.  For example, if you want to photograph sunrise, make sure your location doesn’t have a large mountain range between you and the eastern horizon.

Sometimes, local topographical maps are hard to come by, or simply too expensive if you travel extensively, so I tend to take the digital route.  It is hard to beat Google Maps and Google Earth.  If you haven’t explored Google Maps thoroughly, you may not know that they do a whole lot more than provide handy driving directions.  Check out the top right corner of the map where you can switch between standard road maps, terrain maps, and satellite images.  The terrain map is nice, providing a basic topographical map but the resolution may not be as detailed as you’d like.  Switch to the satellite option or open Google Earth and you can get a feel for where you will find trees, fields, lakes, and so much more.  With these virtual options, you can get a great feel for the area before you ever set foot outside.

Read, Read, Read

My bookshelf and local bookstores are typically my next stop when I am preparing for the field.  I consult local books for trail suggestions and wildlife viewing hotspots.  If I am in a local bookstore, I often will take a spin through the coffee table book section and see what other photographers have done on the area.  For example, since I have just moved to a region rich in lakes and waterfalls, I spent an hour in Barnes & Noble a couple weeks back flipping through photo books about the area.  I am looking at how other photographers have covered certain subjects and what seems to be missing.  Basically, I’m looking for inspiration, ideas that I can improve upon, or maybe just a starting point.

Whether I am visiting some place totally new or a location I have been to a hundred times before, I check for recent reports on the Internet.  If you are after birds, then there will likely be an online listserve or blog that covers the area you are visiting (Check Birding on the Net for options).  People will post recent sightings and conditions.  This can tip you off to something rare and exciting or save time you time if your target hasn’t been seen in weeks.   Be careful though, places great for birding may not be great for photography.  Keep in mind the difference.

Visit the location

No matter how much research you do, nothing can replace visiting the area at least once before you set out to photograph.  Timing may not always allow this, but it is extremely valuable.  Today, my wife and I spent the day wandering the trails in the Finger Lakes National Forest, west of Ithaca, New York.  The weather was beautiful, a cool and crisp fall day.  The forest consisted of brown trunks surrounded by yellow leaves.  It was gorgeous.  I carried a camera, but I didn’t work to create any photographs.  The day was about exploration and becoming familiar with the area.

As we walked through the woods, I was looking for photographic opportunities.  I was listening carefully for birds and checking each flock of chickadees for other birds.  Some of the birds that we saw fell into the category of residents; I know I can return to this forest to photograph nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and more.  Other birds were migrants, like warblers and thrushes, and will only be around for a few more weeks before they all have gone south.  I also paid careful attention to the changing habitats.  This can provide great insight into what birds or other animals may be found there next spring as the breeding season commences.  I’ll be returning to the site later this week and have several images I’d like to try to capture.

When you are traveling far from home you can’t always visit a location prior to photographing.  However, there are still a few options to improve your chances of getting that special photograph:

  • Use the middle of the day, when the light is harsh, to scout.  While I was traveling in Australia, I typically photographed at dawn and dusk while spending the middle part of the day scouting locations for that evening or the following morning.  This allowed me to maximize my time in the field.
  • Preview the light and try to pick out a few compositions.  Carry a compass and find out where the sun will rise or set.  When scouting locations, use this information to pick out angles you’d like to photograph and possible compositions.  When you arrive later, you’ll know exactly where you want to start and can work from there.
  • Consult a local photographer.  As I have written previously, local expertise can be invaluable.  Whether you are meeting up with a friend or hiring a guide, you get to take advantage of years of local experience for your few days in the area.

Work these three easy steps into your plan before you ever pick up a camera and you can improve your photographs.  Simply by being at the right place at the right time and being ready will let you capture whatever unfolds in front of your lens in the best light.

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